Why arts and letters can't be fence-sitting

Why there wasn’t a large-scale people’s movement against the onslaught on arts and writing until now is problematic.

One of Banksy’s iconic murals, Son of a Migrant from Syria, which shows Steve Jobs as a Syrian refugee. Artists like Banksy have helped bring social injustices across the world to the fore.

Absolutist power that wants to curb arts and letters has never in the history of the world sustained long enough to overthrow the voice of the people.

Since the inception of the ruling dispensation, we have seen concerted efforts to wield an authoritarian grip on institutions that nurture art, reason, logic and everything that celebrates the individual’s freedom of curiosity and expression, scientific or creative.

With the Lok Sabha vote a couple of days away, a few scientists, filmmakers, theatre personalities, writers and women have issued statements and staged marches calling upon the electorate to vote against the politics of hate.

Feeble the calls may be, they echo as whimpers of those who feel cornered, stateless and isolated, shunned for the values and principles they stand and live by. So, why is the government blatantly dismissive of artists and writers? Plainly put, it fears them.

It is afraid of the sheer power of the creative sort and the intelligentsia that plant seeds of rational thinking. Or why would it want its own coteries of handymen at the Film and Television Institute and the Jawaharlal Nehru University among other institutions of excellence?

It desperately wants to erase a people’s history and write a new one in no time. So, the first targets are the arts and letters.

Onslaught on arts

However, it remains problematic why there wasn’t a large-scale people’s movement against the onslaught on arts and writing until now. Metrolife spoke to filmmaker M S Sathyu about the recent calls to vote out the hate politics.

“What is the alternative? Are they providing any? Then, what are these protests about?” asks Sathyu.

“The protests we see today are nothing more than a last-minute scramble. We need a strong movement, not statements or reactionary antics, against the ruination of the arts. Art is not dependent on the government. But, now it is a weapon. Nowadays one should pay money to visit an art gallery and is charged 18% GST to watch a play. Art should be free for all. Not taxed and charged,” he elaborates.

Interestingly, more than the nationalist vs anti-national trope, it is abundantly clear that what really is at play is an upper-class hegemony masquerading as pseudo-revivalist, taking advantage of the narrative to ride to power once again. We had a time when our films and artists called out social inequalities and evils. So, those who gag creative expression and oppress the minorities and the weak are no doubt well aware of the potential of right messaging.

“Ours is a caste-ridden society. That is the main reason for the state of affairs of the day. Politicians take advantage of it,” laments Sathyu.

The so-called art of the day is increasingly of a sort that plays to the interests of the aforementioned hegemony, either endorsed by it or financed by cronies. The few films that reek of base political advertising released recently are a testimony to the fact, reminding us of the Fuhrer’s notorious propaganda minister and his vile media experiments.

“We want to go back to an India where all were equal, where differences were looked upon as natural, where cultural and educational institutions could flourish without fear of being arm twisted into following a certain ideology. We do not want divisive politics, we want the politics of bringing people together.” Shashi Deshpande, one of the signatories among writers who have come out in protest told Metrolife.

Famished of art

Independent art, especially films and theatre, are called indie just because they aren’t at the mercy of any vested interest. Since time immemorial, such art has been reflecting upon society and steering us in the right path, away from sociopolitical dilemmas. The past four years have seen the appropriation of independent communication vehicles, and their elimination even if it amounts to murder, as they are obstacles in the way of irrational positions of the ruling class.

Rising legitimacy to this point of view, particularly fuelled by the short-termism of digital and mainstream media, is helped by a society that is becoming increasingly insensitive. If the country is famished of great art and literature in the age of communication, well, something’s not right. It is slowly losing its ability to take part in politic, seeing it as something inadvertent and corrupt.

This shows the decadence of our creative pursuits. Opportunists as they are, the current regime is using this to gain. Until this is reversed, no amount of armchair rebellion can save the country from turning into a rouge state.

“I don’t want to judge from the outside saying the ruling party is for hate and the opposition isn’t. It is true for the last four years the politics of hate has increased. So, we must be careful not to vote them back to power,” says actor-director and writer Girish Karnad.

Elsewhere though, there has been art that has held power accountable from time to time, from Pussy Riot in Putin’s Russia to the famed street artist, Banksy of Britain.

If artists and writers give in and in turn take the place of fringe elements in society, reduced to fence-sitters, it would be a path of no return.

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